The verdant province of Gilan in northern Iran is known for a number of things: Its lush forests, temperate climate, high rainfall, and the ancient Roudkhan Castle in the heart of the Caspian Hyrcanian forests.
Gilan, which borders the southwestern edge of the Caspian Sea, is certainly an ideal destination for the outdoorsy traveler, but it is also perfect for the foodie traveler. With a variety of dishes as green as the landscape, Gilan is a vegetarian’s dream. Hey, don’t worry; thanks to its access to the Caspian Sea, there’s a good deal of sea food dishes as well.
The food trail I suggest you follow starts from Astara (near the northern tip of the province, bordering the Republic of Azerbaijan) and ends in Roudsar, which is the home of a popular fish dish.
Astara is a border city with a myriad of natural attractions, from hot water springs to evergreen villages. Its proximity to Azerbaijan shows in both the local culture and foods.
Barring Rasht, most cities in Gilan have an abundance of traditional diners, so don’t worry about finding the “best” local restaurant. Astara is no different.
Certain dishes such as Mosama (a type of stew with fowl meat) and Fesenjan (chicken stew with walnut and pomegranate sauce) taste vastly different as you move east within Gilan, to the point where they almost become different dishes! So try the same dish in different cities and decide for yourself which you like more.
Astara is famed for a variety of foods, but three particularly standout: Lavangi, Mosama, and Borani Polo.
Lavangi is a local word used to refer to stuffed chicken, duck or Caspian White Fish. Common to Astara and Talesh, lavangi taste sweet and sour because two of the main ingredients of the dish are medlar paste and pomegranate paste, which taste sweet and sour respectively.
Aside from the two types of paste mentioned above, the stuffing includes diced tomatoes, crushed walnuts, pepper, cinnamon, and onions mixed in verjuice. It is served with Kateh (quickly steamed rice) — a rice dish originating in Gilan and Mazandaran, which features heavily in a variety of northern foods.
Some chefs include top quality caviar fished out of the Caspian Sea in the stuffing, in which case expect to pay a little (!) extra.
Mosama is a type of stew found all over Iran. The nomenclature usually includes the name of one of the main ingredients (e.g. mosama bademnjan, or eggplant mosama) but in Astara it is simply referred to Mosama.
It is commonly served in ceremonies or given away as votive for religious purposes but select restaurants have this dish on the menu.
Preparing it doesn’t take long and it’s easy, but perfecting it requires a heap of experience. Large chunks of chicken are sautéed with dried cherry plums and a small amount of tomato paste, then boiled in a very small amount of water and seasoned with local spices.
No trip to Astara is complete without Borani Polo, a rice dish generally served for lunch in autumn. Rice is cooked Kate-style along with diced zucchini, crushed walnuts, and turmeric. However, instead of steaming the rice with water, they use milk! Surprised? You should be; it’s not common.
The dish is usually served with grilled Caspian White Fish, but it is filling enough on its own; perfect for vegetarians.
These meals are often accompanies by side dishes including the local torshi (pickled vegetables) and zeytoon parvardeh (olives marinated in pomegranate paste, mint, and walnuts). They’re all served with locally-produced doogh, a type of yoghurt drink similar to kefir but not as thick and—in my opinion—tastier.
Do yourselves a favor and try the doogh, and don’t order soda! They were never meant to be drunk with fizzy drinks.
Driving east along the coasts of the Caspian Sea and through thick Hyrcanian forests we reach the town of Lisar and the city of Hashtpar (aka Talesh). Both are historically significant: They were occupied by the Allied powers during the latter years of World War II and were used to deliver supplies to the Soviet army.
The cities are part of Talesh County, which means their local dishes are identical or at least very similar.
A traditional dish typically served for breakfast in — particularly in rural areas — is Sirjineh, which is basically scrambled eggs with a Gilaki flair. They first stir rice flour or cornmeal in some milk, then break the desired number of locally-produced eggs in the bowl before sprinkling some sugar and turmeric on it. They proceed to beat the eggs for a minute or two and fry the whole thing in a pre-heated pan. Very tasty and highly nutritious! It is normally served with freshly-baked flat bread; but if you’re watching your carbs, you could probably do without the bread.
You’re unlikely to find this in local diners after midday, so if you really want to try it (and you should), head out for breakfast.
You may also find dishes you tried in Astara. Go ahead and order them in Talesh or Lisar; they most likely taste differently.
As you drive further east in the province, the foods begin to take on a sweeter taste. That is certainly the case in our next stop on our food journey: Bandar Anzali.
The football-crazed port city is home to some of the finest Gilaki foods known to Iranians, including baqala qatoq and alou mosama.
Baqala qatoq is a stew made with broad beans, dill and eggs. It’s a simple food, but requires a bit of preparation as the beans must be soaked overnight. I don’t know about you, but the yellowish-green hue of the food is enough to make my mouth water.
The eggs can be used either in the dish as it’s being prepared or in sunny-side-up-style as garnish. In other words, you can ask for your food to be made without eggs if you so wish.
Baqala qatoq is generally served with toasted flat bread, but it can also be had with kateh.
You may recall earlier when I said dishes such as mosama have varied tastes depending on the region. Well, Anzali’s alou (Persian for prune) mosama tastes very different from its counterpart in Astara.
The main difference between the two stews is that alou mosama tastes sweeter thanks to the use of sugar and qeysi, an endemic apricot. Also, there is no tomato paste used in the making of alou mosama.
Alou mosama and baqala qatoq are found all over the province, and even in bordering regions such as Mazandaran Province. But local customs have of course played a role in how they’re prepared, which inadvertently affect the taste. So, I repeat: Do try the same food in different cities.
Continuing our trip, we arrive at Rasht, Gilan’s largest city recognized by UNESCO for its food diversity.
For foodies, the city is known for one particular food: Mirza qasemi, which is arguably the most famous northern cuisine in all of Iran. It was created in the late 19th century by Mohammad Qasem Khan Vali, the ruler of the principality of Rasht, who apparently went out of his way to make the food known regionally. As such, he is the namesake of mirza qasemi.
Usually prepared as casserole, the dish is made up of eggplants seasoned with tomatoes and bits of garlic, with a dash of turmeric and vegetarian oil (or butter). It’s then mixed with eggs and cooked in a pot.
It is normally served with rice but can also be had with flat bread. Sometimes it’s used on its own as an appetizer—a filling one at that!
Next on our food journey is Lahijan. Now, ask any Iranian to associate one food with Lahijan and you’re most likely going to hear one word: Koloocheh! This traditional northern cookie is so popular that has become commercialized, with multiple food companies mass producing them. But make no mistake: freshly-baked koloocheh made by expert Gilaki chefs is in a league of its own.
As far as cookies go, it’s a pretty healthy one: It’s got raisins and walnuts, and Gilakis are very particular about the quality of cocoa they use.
Make sure you have it with proper Gilaki tea. Oh, you didn’t know? Yes, Gilan is one of the major producers of tea in Iran. And what better drink to wash down koloocheh with than chai Irani.
Because of its location, Gilan has a number of sea foods. One which stands out is mahi-e malate. This, like other Gilaki sea foods, is served in restaurants all across the province but it’s to be first tried in the city it originated from: Roudsar, which is our next destination.
Originally, it was only made with the Caspian White Fish but throughout the years other fish found in the Caspian Sea have been used to prepare the dish, such as the mullet, zander, and carp.
The fish is typically grilled on an open fire and occasionally rubbed with sour orange juice as it is being cooked. It is served with a local dip consisting of powdered walnut and sea holly (a plant locally called chochagh) mixed in pomegranate paste.
It is served with rice but nobody’s going to look at you sideways if you decide to have it on its own.
By some accounts, Gilan is home to over 140 foods. Obviously we cannot include all of them in a single article, or we’ll bore you death. Honorable mentions include Torshi Tareh, a deep green-colored stew that consist of spinach, coriander, mint and eggs (quelle surprise!) and Khotka Fesenjan; a duck stew with a maroon, almost brown color stew made with the common teal (as opposed to chicken, which is how fesenjan is made in the rest of the country).
Have you been to Gilan? Tried a dish we haven’t mentioned? Well, drop us a comment below and tell us all about it!
P.S. This article is part of a PersiaPort series on culinary tourism in Iran.
Home to over 2,500 dishes and 109 drinks, Iran is a foodie’s dream destination. Food diversity in Iran is such that the same food might be prepared and taste differently from city to city within the same region.
Culinary tourism is without a doubt one of the best ways to discover new destinations, learn about local customs and traditions, and, of course, treat yourself to exotic dishes unlikely to be found in their original form anywhere else.
With special thanks to Arash Nooraghayee for his helpful insights on the trails to include.